Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Breaking the Bow

Do you love the Ramayana? Do you like speculative fiction? You should check out Breaking the Bow, edited by Anil Menon and Vandana Singh , an anthology of Ramayana inspired fiction.

(fair warning, I haven't actually read this book yet, but I'm really excited about it.)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A More Diverse Universe Project

Or, two book reviews for the price of one.

Over at Book Lust, they're doing a blog tour to promote authors of color in speculative fiction. I neglected to sign up officially, but heck, I was interested and it seemed like a worthwhile project. So here we go.

The Alchemists of Kush

I had been meaning to read Minister Faust since I first heard an interview with him for Coyote Kings The Space Age Bachelor Pad, but when I went to buy it, I thought that maybe for something I was planning to review online, it was better to pick up something newer, so I wasn't talking about something he'd written years ago. I picked up The Alchemists of Kush without knowing much about it.

Specifically, I didn't know when I picked it up that it was a Young Adult novel.

The book alternates between two separate stories, labeled the Book of Then and the Book of Now. The Book of Then follows an orphaned boy wizard through a landscape of Egyptian myths and nightmares, while the Book of Now follows a young Half-Sudanese immigrant to the New World through his education by a neighbor who teaches him to fight, to think, to respect, and to take pride in his own heritage.

The language in this book is very accessible, which is both a pro and a con for me. I thought it worked against the Book of Then, where the inclusion of vernacular terms felt anachronistic, for all that they helped convey that the first person narrator was a child. The Book of Now made great use of language though, particularly in the first section where we meet our hero Rap (Raphael) and in some of the sections of freestyle rap. The text also has a habit of sentence fragments where the subject has been omitted- again, particularly when referring to the main character, which can be jarring, but it also makes the text moves faster, and perhaps more importantly, it sounds real and raw because of it.

The Book of Then took a while to catch my interest- basically until about a third of the way through when it ties itself firmly to the Osiris myth, both because that gave me something to tie it to and because it represents a stress point for the narrator's relationship with his enemy-turned-friend.

The Book of Now was alternately charming and frustrating, in the way teenage boys are alternately charming and frustrating. Rap and his friends are basically good kids who have lacked community, fathers, role models, and support, and it's put them in a very bad place very early on in the book. When they find themselves in the debt of a neighborhood shop keeper, their sincere attempts (more sincere on Rap's part, honestly) to do right by him put them on a path of growth and self-discovery. Their teacher has a very Pan-African, community-focused outlook, and this is woven through everything that he teaches the boys. If you're a reader who's coming into these ideas for the first time it's explained thoroughly and in a way I suspect will be both interesting and comprehensible. If you're an adult who's already familiar with some of the theory and practice, you may find yourself skimming forward. Be prepared as well for a LOT of name dropping. If you're not familiar with rap, jazz, black writers, black activists, or Pan-African terms, this book is going to give you itemized lists. The boys try to live up to ideals, and find themselves failing sometimes, sometimes succeeding, but always growing. Actually I find myself most charmed by the times they fail, because they've misunderstood or not taken some vital aspect of respect or self-reliance into account. It feels human, and they hurt so transparently that you can't not hurt with them.  

It's very nice, by the way, to have a book about blackness where white folk are a distant presence at best most all of the time. The legacy of slavery and colonialism are still very present in all the characters lives, and white artists and TV programs are mentioned (as well as Asian culture- the kids study Asian martial arts and one of the main characters has adopted the nom de guerre of Jackie Chan), but there aren't present white antagonists of the kids own age taunting them or trying to put them down. The book isn't about defining blackness in opposition to whiteness; it's about bringing to fruition the inner worth of a person, in a tradition that the characters trace to Africa (turning lead into gold, the alchemist metaphor that gives the book its title).  

I can think of several young men I would have nudged toward this book back when I was substitute teaching- the type of kids who push official school assigned books away because they can't find anything in them they can relate to, or who don't like to read because they don't think it looks tough. There are blood, fighting, and curse words in this book enough to make kids think they're getting away with something, and as stated earlier the text reads fast and without a lot of challenging construction or SAT words. It's also built around principles of discipline, community, self-respect, and self-expression that I think will resonate with a lot of young people. I'm a little old for this book personally, but if you have a teenager or young twenty-something who thinks he can't learn because he just doesn't have the smarts in him, and yet can rap an entire album from memory and work through any puzzle he's interested in in minutes, this is a good bet.

The Throne of the Crescent Moon

I have enjoyed a lot of Saladin Ahmed's short fiction (Hooves in the Hovel of Abdul Jameel is still my favorite), and so when I found out he was doing a novel set in a sort of Arabian Nights inspired fantasy, I was pretty jazzed about it. Even moreso when I'd read the short "Where Virtue Lives", which introduces two of the novel's main characters. I have a personal beef with this novel, but I'd like to go through and talk about it objectively before I get to that.

The Throne of the Crescent Moon follows near-retired ghul hunter and all-around sensualist Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, upon whom has recently been foisted a fun-sized religious fanatic apprentice who is as good with a sword as he isn't with chilling out and having a good time. When they find stronger ghuls than they've ever faced before and the last survivor of a murdered tribe- a girl with the power to shift into a divine lion form, it becomes apparent that they're facing something that may be beyond the scope of all of them.

This is a sword and sorcery adventure, and if that's not your thing, you won't like this book. The villains are inhuman and unspeakably evil (one of them has the best evil nick name I have ever seen bestowed to any character: "The Child Scythe"), and the heroes are, for the most part, pretty good. Honestly, for the genre they're practically saintly. The author has clearly read Leiber, but is pleasantly refraining from trying to write Leiber. The action and the magic are fast and cinematic- the mechanics aren't labored over, but there are rules and costs. There is a section in the middle where the book does slow unfortunately while the characters go to ground to wait and recuperate.

This book belongs to Adoulla, and he's a fun, well drawn character, even if he wants to spend a lot of time passing gas and licking nuts off his fingers. One of my favorite things about him is despite the fact that he's something of a holy man and a scholar now, he came up as a bare-knuckles street fighter.  He has a past, and he's a character who has pleasantly learned most, if not all of the lessons that past had to teach him. He doesn't have a lot of growing left to do- instead he has a struggle of holding on as he gets older, as there's a natural tendency to become complacent, as his body stops being able to do everything he thinks it should.

The other characters don't do as well by comparison. Raseed the strict dervish apprentice has a fun relationship with the more laid back Adoulla, but it's overshadowed by his awkward romantic interest with Zamia, who is just as stiffly reluctant to acknowledge it because both of them have duties and commitments. There are also a husband and wife team who are interesting characters, but whose relation to the plot keeps them off to the side.

Having been to Cairo, I love Dhamsawaat all the more for how very Cairo it is (there's even a specific caliph I think the city's ruler is based on, but I can't remember his name for the life of me). It's a big, messy, smelly, corrupt, magical, wonderful city, and I think people who have lived anywhere big will appreciate it. The author's taken a lot of pains to make sure the caliphate empires are represented, to the extent that the married couple presented come from deep in Nubia and far away western China (which is where the original Aladdin story takes place, if you're interested in trivia). People's cultures and philosophies are diverse, and it's the kind of multicultural setting that shows off the diversity that was actually present in the Islamic golden age.

And to my beef.

Raseed bas Raseed.

I'm a girl who has indulged in more than a little dungeons and dragons, and I spent a long time playing a paladin. Raseed bas Raseed was the character I was most looking forward to- an uncompromising holy warrior whose commitment to living up to the letter of his faith puts him at odds with his friends. I was hoping to see him grapple with trying to dutifully obey the man who's been given charge of him while not violating the promises he's made to his order. I wanted to see him refuse to do things that would help the people around him, but would violate his sense of right. I wanted him to be stubborn, and pig-headed, and obstructionist. The short set in Dharmsawaat convinced me that Mr. Ahmed could write that sympathetically, without making Raseed a one-dimensional cardboard crazy, but also without sacrificing the actual rigidity of his principles.

I feel like there were times where this conflict could have happened and happened big, but the author avoided doing it. I guess in part this is because this is Adoulla's book and not Raseed's, but there's a time or two where Raseed is very conveniently not able to find out about something objectionable another character had done, and by the end of the book those chickens have not come home to roost. It never comes to a head. It's possible that's being saved for later in the series, but it feels more like the conflict I was most hoping to see is just not one the author is as interested in writing (or possibly one the author feels like will end the partnership).

I feel like this one is more a personal objection than anything. I had a specific expectation I was really excited about, and it wasn't realized.

It's a good little adventure book overall. I'm just a little grumpy about not getting what I want.

If the nihilism and moral relativity of Martin is not what you want, this is fun fair in a location that is thankfully not just the Lord of the Rings with the serial numbers filed off. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

More on Multicultural Writing

Yeah, yeah, I know some of you are getting tired of it, but I like it.

Or at least, I feel like it's necessary. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Retronaut and More!

In addition to having one of the most fabulous names imaginable, Retronaut is a really cool archive of images and curios from the past- people presenting themselves and their world as they saw it way back when. The tourist bureau for the foreign country of the past.

And while we're looking back, check out US History Minus the White Guys. I know some of you are rolling your eyes about that, but it's got all sorts of fun stuff on it like dispatches from Queen Lili'ukolani, Kate Warne the lady detective, and Matthew Henson, who was on the first trip to the North Pole. (For those of y'all reading this and grousing about the deliberate exclusion of only white men from this history blog, please consider it a supplement to the history available in public schools, which because of lack of time and resources, often confine their materials to dealing principally with the actions of white men in offices of power).

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Sense of Place

I don't write about real places much, and I recognize that this is something of a failing.

Even in the places I've actually lived, I sort of feel like I'd be giving a tourist-eye view of a place, or dropping names just to sound cool. I'm not really sure how people do it as a regular thing.

It's one of the challenges I'm trying to take on for myself with this story I'm currently working on. I've recently moved to a new city. It's got a dialect different from what I'm used to, pretty singular architecture and local industry, and recognizable, named places all throughout it.

This is a skill I feel I should have, and nothing bestows a skill like a few hearty rounds of trying and failing repeatedly by smaller increments. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Inefficiencies Inherent in the System

So an article recently came out about how America throws away over 40% of the food it grows. I have elected not to post an accompanying picture of a starving African child with this link. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Escape Pod Flash Contest (Again)!

I suspect if you come to this blog you're aware that I love Escape Pod, and, possibly, you're aware how much I love the Escape Pod Flash Fiction Contest. I found out about this one kind of late, but it's okay, flash doesn't take that long to write. You have to sign up to the Escape Pod forums to vote on these things, but I think it's very much worthwhile.

Anyway, this year the word limit is 750 (up from 500, which was previously up from 300 (350?)) and the entrance deadline is September 15th.

It's excellent and if you're reading this you should join!

And remember.

Have fun. 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

If You Happen to be in a Brazilian Jail

Brazilian prisoners get four days off their sentence for every book they read. Which is awesome. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Superior Memory

Some people have it, and we're looking at their brains in machines!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Lovecraft and Weird Fiction

I recently read an article someone linked me about how The Invisibles is a microcosm of all the reasons Grant Morrison is an awesome writer. Having, at best, a lot of ambivalence about both Mr. Morrison and the Invisibles as a series, I clicked on it and read through, discussing with a dear friend as I went.

I think my problem with the Invisibles, I said, was that none of the ideas- the anti-authority stuff, the big secret conspiracy, the idea that governments are lying to you- none of those felt really new or revelatory to me. It's like Cat's Cradle- I really like it, but it's not my favorite, whereas my dad and my brother were blown away by the constructed religion and deliberate deception when they read it. I'd already found that idea elsewhere, so for me it was just a fun read.

And as we kept reading the article (which at one point in bolded italicized texts informed the reader that if they didn't think Grant Morrison was the biggest genius ever, then they were wrong and stupid), we got to the key point: reading back now, this series was just as fresh and important to the article's author as it was when he read it the first time, as a troubled young man of seventeen.

There've been a lot of books I feel like I was perhaps too old to fully appreciate when I read them, with Catcher in the Rye standing out as the worst. I'm not sure it's possible to really appreciate that book after the age where you've had to work to earn a living (though I've also been informed I just don't “get” Holden because I'm a girl). In contrast, I feel like I probably love Even Cowgirls Get the Blues more than it deserves, because it was one of the first books of what is arguably magical realism that I read. My memory of the book is inseparable from my feelings of elation and discovery the first time I read it, when I was, I believe, nineteen.

The reason I bring this up is anarticle by Jeff VanderMeer discussing the unhealthy fixation with H.P. Lovecraft that many people within “weird” fiction have (I also say this having just listened to the Drabblecast's fantastic annual H.P. Lovecraft month, which I never fail to enjoy). I like Lovecraft's work a lot, especially for the time it was written. There is some deeply troubling racism, extreme even for the time, but there's also a dab hand at the horror of the unseen that I really enjoy. When viewed as one among many (and if you're able to muscle past the distasteful elements in some stories- and I don't hold it against anyone who can't), I think he's fun and his cosmic horror really adds something to the conversation- but it's a conversation that also deserves to involve people like Shirley Jackson, Jorge Luis Borges, Kafka... the whole panoply of the surreal and horrific.

And I think for an unfortunate segment of the population, it doesn't.

I didn't realize until Nnedi Okorafor mentioned it, that the world fantasy award is a bust of his head, which feels like it has to be kind of a kick in the jaw to a lot of the writers working nowadays, whom old H. P. would have considered concentrated horror just by virtue of them, you know, being.

(It's probably worth noting that most everything said here about Lovecraft with relation to genre could also be applied to J. R. R. Tolkien (minus the, you know, overt insane racism). He's one of my first and dearest, but he's not the whole genre.)

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Hardest Poems

Amal El-Mohtar talks a little bit about writing and revising poetry.